What Could You Be?

Memoir MondaysAsk a toddler what they want to “be” when they grow up and you’ll get all manner of responses, from princesses and ballerinas, to superheroes and race car drivers, to those kids that are insistent they’re going to be a dog or a dinosaur. At that age the mind is so full of wonder and imagination that kids just shout out their favorite things and take it at face value that it’s possible to become these things when they grow up.

Wait a few years and ask again, and you’ll likely get more reasonable answers, though the expectations will still be pretty unrealistic. You’ll get kids who want to be basketball stars, famous actors, world-renowned artists. At this stage of life kids dream big, imagining without doubt that they could become the famous people they adore. They’re wonderful dreams, but the overwhelming majority of those dreams will never come to fruition.

Then you come to the older kids – the ones preparing for life after high school – and the game changes again. These young adults want to become doctors and lawyers, programmers and professors. They’ve weighed options, personal strengths and interests, financial compensation, and the probability of making it in the current job market, and they’ve come up with what they figure is the perfect job for them. Of course, we know that things don’t always turn out that way, but at that age we all do the best we can with the information we have at the time.

And finally, we come to the work world, where – let’s be honest now – a great number of us spend our days dreaming of what we could have been, because it’s very rare for someone to find themselves in exactly the right job, the one that fits them perfectly and makes them happy.

The first thing I can remember wanting to be as a child was a nurse. I didn’t even really know what being a nurse entailed – I just wanted to be one because that was what I thought my mother was (in actuality she was a personal care worker at a senior’s home). At that stage in my life I was just emulating; I loved my mommy and wanted to grow up to be like her, whatever that turned out to mean.

As I grew a little older I started to dream bigger. I loved to sing and play piano, and imagined myself becoming a breakaway star. I loved to act out my favorite TV shows and imagined that I would someday be a real actor on one of them. I started drawing and had delusions of becoming an animator or a comic artist. And around that time I first started writing; I thought the stories that I wrote about my friends and I being able to travel into video games were absolutely brilliant and that surely they would be published some day and make me millions of dollars.

By the time I reached the point at which I had to actually start thinking reasonably about my career, my focus was on technology. I had this image in my head of a computer-driven field where I would be doing things like programming, engineering, and – I didn’t really know…hacking, maybe? I grew up through the rise of home computers and wide-spread use of the Internet, and I just had this idea of being one of those computer whizzes you see in crappy 80’s movies that didn’t actually understand how computers work. I kinda-sorta had a thing for “technology” – I would sometimes pull broken things apart to see if I could fix them – and it seemed like the field to get into if I wanted to be financially stable.

In the real world things didn’t work out at all how I had expected them to. I did actually wind up in a technological field, but it wasn’t sitting at a computer whipping out lines of code like I had imagined. The first field I approached in college – a program centered around GPS programming – was cancelled before I could even start the first course, so I was pushed to pick something else, anything else, fast, before the school year started. There weren’t an overwhelming number of options, so I ended up picking mostly at random. The course was a diverse one that taught the basics of electronics, a bit of programming, a bit of the most recent technologies, and a lot of stuff about measuring stuff like flow, temperature, and pressure that didn’t really make a lot of sense at a time.

The measuring stuff seemed the most random and non-nonsensical while I was in the program, so of course that’s what I somehow ended up dealing with in the work world. I became an instrumentation technologist in the maintenance crew at a paper mill, which sounds a lot more impressive than it really is. Though there is a lot of knowledge and experience required to be able to excel in the field, the job basically boils down to being a grease-monkey in an industrial setting. I would rip apart giant valves to replace broken parts, hang upside-down under ten-ton motors in a pool of grease and oil in order to clear clogs, and occasionally I’d get the clean-and-comfortable job of modifying the control program to make some of the instruments work better. It was the kind of job that no amount of school really helps you prepare for; at the beginning I felt dumb as a brick, but with every broken instrument I learned something until I actually had some idea of what was going on at any given time.

From there I moved on to the Alberta oil patch, where I’m in the same field, but instead of maintenance I work on commissioning teams. That means that instead of fixing stuff that’s already in use, I’m getting brand new stuff ready to be used for the first time. My teams go out on sites that are in the process of being built, and we go to each individual instrument, making sure that it’s installed properly, programmed to do what it’s meant to do, and is working as per engineering specifications. If we do our job properly, everything will go smoothly when the operators start up the new site. At most of these jobs I work on the control panel end, which means that I sit at the computers that the operators will eventually use to run the site, and I make sure that all the information is coming through the way it’s supposed to. It’s a pretty cushy job, as far as jobs in the oil patch go, and if you’d asked me when I was younger I would never have guessed in a million years that that’s where I would have wound up.

Of course there were lots of other bits and pieces to my career history, like my several-year paper route, my stint at a Sirius Satellite Radio call center, and the number of times that I worked for soul-crushing department stores, but not many people aspire to do those kinds of jobs, so we’ll just ignore those ones for the sake of this post.

I guess what I’m getting at here is that hopes and dreams, attitudes and aspirations change as time goes on, and we often don’t end up where we had expected, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t keep dreaming. Since the concept first popped into my head in grade school I have always dreamed of being a novelist. Despite having to, you know, work for a living, I have managed to partially achieve that dream via the magic of self-publishing. But there’s plenty of work to do. I don’t want to just have written a novel; I want to be a novelist, with lots of books under my belt and maybe even a couple in an actual book store. Maybe I’ll never achieve those goals, but sometimes, just sometimes, you have to let yourself revert back to those first stages stubborn belief and dreaming big.

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